At Precision Lumber in New Hampshire, shavings are sold
for animal bedding, bark for mulch, chips to paper mills and
power plants. The company sells a little sawdust to farmers, but
most of it gets burned to power its drying kiln and the rest goes
to pellet mills, said Robertie. “It’s 100 percent used,” he said.
Robertie estimates that byproducts account for 16 percent of
Precision Lumber’s revenues, and that doesn’t take into account
the money saved by burning wood waste for heat. “We burn
zero oil for heating the buildings and producing steam for the
dry kilns now,” he said.
The increased efficiency and new revenue streams have been
especially important for mills at a time when profit margins
“They’re trying to use [the wood] in whatever way they
can. It’s tough to be a mill today without doing that, whether
it’s using some of that byproduct itself for energy or finding a
new market for it. And biomass is probably the biggest one,”
said Kathleen Wanner, the executive director of the Vermont
Woodland Owners Association.
Randy Cousineau owns Cousineau Wood Products, which
has a sawmill in Maine, and Cousineau Forest Products,
a byproducts processing and brokering company in New
Hampshire. He brokers his own mill residues and those from
about 25 other mills in Maine and New Hampshire, handling
about 600,000 cubic yards, or 6,000 semi truckloads, a year.
Some byproducts can be sold as is, he said. Others have to
be processed. Cousineau’s North Anson, Maine, sawmill uses
about 30,000 board feet of high-grade hardwood a week for the
production of gunstocks, baseball bats, and drum sticks. The
company also makes dyed Spectra-ply plywood for gunstocks.
Offcuts from both those operations are recut and sold to companies that supply the hobby woodturning
industry with blanks for bottle stoppers and
The company has mobile grinders that go
from job site to job site grinding up wood waste
or Christmas trees to be sold to biomass plants.
Cousineau said that for his operations,
byproducts are not just icing on the revenue
cake, but an essential ingredient in the mix.
“We wouldn’t be able to survive” without sales
of byproducts, he said. “We have to generate
The byproducts market, like the forest
products industry overall, is in a constant state
of flux as internal and external factors change.
The market for sawdust is a good example.
Its use as farm animal bedding has dwindled as the number of
farms has dropped and competition has arisen from other bedding products. Pleasant River Lumber still sells to the bedding
market, said Brochu, but that market has shrunk. These days,
a semi-truckload of sawdust can fetch a decent price, but that
price depends on the location of the mill and the number of
potential customers in the area.
Sometimes changes in demand, and resulting shifts in
prices, can occur quickly, leaving mill owners scrambling to
find alternative markets or factor lower prices for byproducts
into their business plans. The announcement last fall of more
paper mill closures and machine shutdowns in Maine caused
prices for many byproducts to drop “dramatically,” Brochu said
in November 2015. Then things got worse. In early January
2016, Brochu reported that “the overall residual markets have
collapsed pretty hard. There is an oversupply of sawdust, chips,
and biomass. We just received notice yesterday that two more
biomass plants are shutting down March 1. It is definitely a sup-
ply and demand issue and demand is disappearing rapidly.”
This developing story illustrates the importance for sawmills
in diversifying their customer base, since no market, whether
for products or byproducts, can be taken for granted, said
Irland, the forest economist. “The producer always has to be
alert and not depend on a single customer.”
And, he said, mills need to keep an eye on policymakers, who
can influence markets in especially dramatic ways. Connecticut’s
recent decision to reduce the value of so-called renewable ener-
gy credits for certain biomass plants, for instance, had ripple
effects throughout northern New England, where much of that
biomass was sourced, Irland said.
Sawmill owners note that the benefits of using every scrap of
fiber extend beyond their bottom lines. There
are plenty of environmental pluses to this efficiency. For one, the waste isn’t taken to landfills.
And while burning wood to heat a dry kiln or
generate electricity creates CO2, that greenhouse
gas would result even if the sawdust rotted in a
corner of the mill yard. At the same time, that
wood fuel has replaced fossil fuels that are
pumped from the ground and transported hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
“There is no greener industry than the
lumber industry,” said Precision Lumber’s Joe
Joe Rankin writes about forestry, nature, and sustainability
from his home in Maine.
“They’re trying to use
[the wood] in whatever way
they can. It’s tough to be a
mill today without doing that,
whether it’s using some of
that byproduct itself for
energy or finding a new
market for it. And biomass is
probably the biggest one.”